Carl Beam


Carl Beam: The North American Iceberg (1985): Acrylic, photo-serigraph, graphite on Plexiglas. Images courtesy the National Gallery of Canada. Photos © NGC.Carl Beam: The North American Iceberg (1985): Acrylic, photo-serigraph, graphite on Plexiglas. Images courtesy the National Gallery of Canada. Photos © NGC.

By Carol-Ann Ryan

Carl Beam
Museum of Anthropology
April 8 to May 29, 2011

Career retrospectives are informative opportunities to view the work of an artist from its beginnings, and through its highs and lows. Along with an artist’s most brilliant works, these expansive exhibitions sometimes reveal not-so-well-known or even weak moments in an artist’s oeuvre. Though struggles are necessary for success, it is rare to find a clear consistency in an artist’s development, and while it may sound boring, it is actually quite astonishing to experience a body of work created over decades that shows a bold commitment to one’s subject, an ongoing exploration of materials and commitment to process, while moving forward without disregarding the past. Carl Beam’s retrospective exhibition does this.

Beam passed away in 2005, and is credited with breaking down the boundaries between contemporary and aboriginal art. His mixed-media work, The North American Iceberg (1986), was the first work the National Gallery of Canada, which organized this retrospective, purchased by an aboriginal artist for its collection of Contemporary Art.

To this day, it is a powerful piece, immersing the viewer in a large field of paint, photo-serigraph and graphite. Combining photos of people and press clippings from different eras with self-portraits and stencilled text, it is a narrative work done in salon scale, fusing history, politics and the contemporary condition. Placed at the entrance to the museum’s installation, this work engages the viewer immediately, offering an initiation into Beam’s art.

Columbus Chronicles (1992): Photo-emulsion, acrylic, graphite on canvas.Columbus Chronicles (1992): Photo-emulsion, acrylic, graphite on canvas.The artist came into his own at a time when aboriginal artists in Canada had found commercial (albeit problematic) success. In Ontario and among the Anishnaabe (or Ojibway) people, Beam’s home province and community, that success was first found by Norval Morrisseau. By the early 1960s, Morrisseau was celebrated for his brightly coloured figures and shapes defined by black outlines that translate for a critical art collecting public the spirituality and oral traditions of his culture visually. Morrisseau became a significant figure among aboriginal artists in North America, influencing what is known today as the Woodland School of painting. Beam veered away from this established artistic route with his practice, choosing instead to investigate how such aboriginal traditions were affected and could be reconciled in a contemporary, post-colonial (?) setting. To do so, he chose a visual language suited to his experience as a late-20th Century aboriginal man and academically trained visual artist.

Beam’s work is often positioned in relation to Robert Rauschenberg rather than his aboriginal contemporaries. Although this reference suits Beam’s tendency towards expressive mixed-media works addressing topical issues, his work has a personal element that is unique. Whether it is the inclusion of his own image, his handprint, or his handwriting describing images or transcribing poems, the artist is always present in the work.

This trace of the maker is paralleled by his constant integration of elements pertaining to aboriginal experience. He critiqued colonial expansion, was interested in linking philosophical thought in Western and Anishinabek traditions, and investigated concepts of time based on natural forces, in opposition to linear systems of time management as imposed by Western civilization. The work resulting from his exploration of these ideas – whether in ceramics, assemblage or video – suggests an interest in the trajectory of humankind and the events that connect us all.

Beam opened new doors for aboriginal artists in Canada that is seen today in any exhibition of contemporary art. His work has maintained its strength and relevance as it continues to force the viewer to consider his message and re-examine the world we live in. As this retrospective demonstrates, his legacy lives on.

Organized by the National Gallery of Canada, Carl Beam opens at the Winnipeg Art Gallery on June 30 and runs until September 11.

Carol-Ann M. RyanCarol-Ann M. Ryan is a Vancouver-based writer, arts educator and collections manager. She has published reviews and articles in Border Crossings, Canadian Art and C Magazine, and has contributed to catalogues for Museum London in London, ON and Presentation House Gallery in North Vancouver, BC.  Carol-Ann is an instructor at Emily Carr University in Continuing Studies and was an Educator at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto.